Worlds of Tomorrow: The Rise of Sci-Fi in Children’s and YA Fiction

Worlds of Tomorrow: The Rise of Sci-Fi in Children's and YA Fiction

(Image by Sarah McIntyre & Philip Reeve)

This week, I attended an event at Foyles, Charing Cross Road (one of my favourite bookshops in London) on ‘the rise of sci-fi in children’s & YA fiction’ with Moira Young, Steve Cole and Kim Lakin-Smith, hosted by Philip Reeve.

If you had asked me two years ago, I’d never have said I liked science fiction. I associated it with aliens and spaceships and ‘not my sort of thing’, but now I’ve realised that this is where all the brilliant books were hiding! I particularly enjoy the sub-genres dystopia and post-apocalyptic (and a little bit of space too, as in Glow) but is this ‘real’ science fiction? I only found out this week that there is seen to be a difference between ‘sci-fi’ and ‘science fiction’ within the community (although they were used interchangeably for the event). Is this still true? Does it matter?

I decided to write up and post my notes, although I’d like to warn you that this is completely paraphrased and not a word-for-word transcript. There may be some mistakes (and I may have misinterpreted some authors), but I hope you find it somewhat interesting.

PR – Philip Reeve, author of Mortal Engines
MY – Moira Young, author of Blood Red Road
SC – Steve Cole, author of Z. Rex
KLS – Kim Lakin-Smith, author of Queen Rat

PR: What drew you into the science fiction genre?
MY: She was influenced by 1960s science fiction such as Lost in Space, A Wrinkle in Time, It Came From Outerspace, Cat Woman on the Moon. But at the time, she did not categorise (or at least, consciously) them as science fiction. She enjoyed them because they were purely entertaining and fun. This meant she did not think about the science fiction genre when writing Blood Red Road.

KLS: She thought her book – Queen Rat – was fantasy and other people put her into the science fiction genre. She had a phobia of not being taken seriously. But now it’s not just about hardcore science fiction.

(Side comment by PR: Is dystopia ‘science fiction you’re allowed to like’? His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is called ‘fantasy’ more than ‘science fiction’ even though it explains the basis of quantum mechanics.)

SC: Specifically wanted to write a YA novel.  He sees science fiction as a fun and imaginative genre. He particularly enjoys ‘optimistic’ science fiction. He joked around about putting ‘-space’ in front of a word to make it science fiction (e.g. space-telephone).

(Side comment by PR: There is less optimistic science fiction now.)

KLS: She likes to be sure about what she is writing (i.e. that it is logical and rational). She does a lot of research and fact-checking, which is probably a reflection of her passion for engineering.

(Side discussion by PR: Steampunk is less science fiction, more fantasy that is Victorian-ish. H.G. Wells was not writing steampunk because he was writing about the science of his time.)

MY: When she comes up with a device, she asks her architect husband if it is plausible, although in Blood Red Road, her characters mainly use primitive devices. Her musical background (she was an opera singer) comes out in Saba’s emotions and internal dialogue.

(Side comment by PR: Science fiction is not a narrow genre. You can never be sure what you’re going to get!)

KLS: Her agent asked her to write a YA novel as there’s a much bigger market for it. The YA books she has written have been more action-adventure but she wants to write more about people who are ‘twisted on the inside and out’.

(I also made a comment to myself here that Patrick Ness (author of Chaos Walking) was in the audience!)

(Side comment by PR: Is there a false distinction between YA and adult?)

SC: He is fascinated by how science fiction has never gone away, but there’s stigma in literature.

PR: It’s called fantasy, or dystopia, or ‘futuristic thriller’! [It’s to do with the packaging (I can’t remember who said this, sorry!)], but can we now call it science fiction?

SC: It’s hard to find shelf space for ‘untried’ science fiction.

KLS. It’s not that women aren’t writing science fiction, they may not know they’re writing it.

[We then moved on to the Q&A part of the event]

Twilight and The Hunger Games set off major trends – what is the next trend?
PR: They’re trends because no one saw them coming.
MY: If authors chase trends, they’re onto nothing because you need to put a lot of time into your book and care about it, and by the time you’re done, there’s a new trend.

Dystopia has popped up because we’re in uncertain times – everything is changing. Adults are anxious about the future and leaving bad conditions behind for their children. This is similar to anxiety during the Cold War, and a result of doom and gloom depicted in the media. Young readers are also on the brink of adulthood, yet there’s a lack of control.  There’s the teen experience and added pressure. In dystopia, big problems are solved by a young protagonist.

PR: Society is being transformed by technology, but people are not coming up with The Man in the White Suit novels. Instead, everything blows up.

MY/SC: Utopia may be the next trend!

KLS: It’s so clean and sterile these days whereas dystopia is all about survival.

[Audience comment: It’s nice to get rid of technology?]
[Audience comment: Perhaps science fiction is seen as trashy? They [i.e. the audience member] wants to see more I, Robot type books – it changed scientific law and was written by a scientist].

Do you talk about your book covers with your publisher?
SC. Shot down a cover when it had two spaceships but no dinosaurs. There is a certain ‘look’. The Wereling series was republished with Twilight-style covers.

KLS. She gave ideas but did not choose the designer. Science fiction can get away with more, especially at a small press. She can do things she wouldn’t normally be able to do e.g. publish a YA novella.

SC. Children don’t labels things in the same way [I think we were talking about genres here].  Science fiction transcends reality so they understand it more [than adults?].

Last thoughts
There was also a rather exciting end, where Patrick Ness ended up having the last word, when an audience member suggested the following: Publishers are purposely not calling books ‘science fiction’ or commissioning books about spaceships even though there’s a real interest in it – they don’t understand their market/audience. He said publishers didn’t create [Twilight and The Hunger Games], they only react. Patrick Ness said that this was ‘bullshit’ and that publishers genuinely think ‘we love this… how can we make this work?’. Publishers want something good and different, they are people that are passionate about books.

Other links you may find interesting:

Worlds of Tomorrow @ The Kitschies
1960s Science Fiction Novels Everyone Should Read

‘Growing Up Too Soon: Fiction That Asks if Teenagers are Ready for the Real World’